How to boost your team’s performance without relying on performance appraisals

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 15:32

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Johnson

‘You used to be much more muchier…you’ve lost your muchness.’ 

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

Managers deal with lost muchness every day.  Human Resource (HR) professionals work tirelessly to ensure that organisations recruit the best and the brightest.  They strive to develop, implement and support individual and organisational success.  They develop performance management systems and give clear expectations through complex competency frameworks.  Good recruitment, good systems, good frameworks.  Why then, is performance still such a problem? 

Isn’t a performance appraisal system supposed to ensure high performance?

Performance appraisal processes play a key role in ensuring fairness in the workplace.  Since each of us is somewhat prone to judgement, bias, preference and assumption, unstructured performance appraisals can lead to dispute, discrimination and unlawful behaviours.

Ok. That’s easy to grasp.  They stop us from being too judgemental or assessing performance inaccurately.  But that still doesn’t explain why they fail to bring performance improvement.

Appraisal systems ensure fairness in performance assessment.  Fair assessments don’t necessarily inspire performance. Fairness. Performance. Not the same thing.

HR professionals know that fairness matters. So HR professionals are right in embedding systems in place to ensure this.

But is the intention known and met by the managers who use these systems?  Are they relying on these to ensure fairness in their performance conversations as intended?  Or are they expecting them to enhance performance itself?  If it’s the latter, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Performance management systems, when used well, help managers plan and prepare fair, accurate performance discussions.   This supports effective feedback once or twice a year.  That’s nowhere near enough to build a high performing workplace.

It’s the daily feedback that requires attention.  The interactions between managers and their teams as tasks progress, which are most likely to enhance or reduce performance. It’s the balance between efficiency and effectiveness and the balance between management and leadership.

Let’s look at these issues one at a time.

Daily feedback.

Does this come in the form of criticism?  I hear you…yes of course it does, but it’s constructive criticism, right?  If it’s not constructive….then it’s simply poor form. 

Constructive criticism – or negative feedback - that identifies, retrospectively, what’s not right with a task or document, is informative.  But that’s it.  It’s important and it gives people information they need.  But it’s not particularly good at enhancing performance. 

It can help progress a task to completion, it can guide change and correction, but can it inspire performance improvement?  Not really.

Reframe the message.  Turn a negative into a positive. Turn a correction or a critique into a performance challenge. Don’t point out what’s wrong, point out what needs to be done to move the task forward.  Guide don’t criticise. It’s not about what someone has done incorrectly, it’s about the next step they must take to improve a task or piece of work.

Efficiency versus effectiveness

Efficiency is the greatest contemporary challenge.  We must operate quickly.  Managers deal with heavy workloads and tight time frames and so time management matters. 

But are we focusing more on efficiency than effectiveness? 

Are we driven more by meeting deadlines than by building capability?

Correcting another person’s work, or completing another person’s task may meet efficiency demands, but these are not likely to enhance performance.

It takes time for managers to guide, develop, coach and inspire.  It takes high level communication skills and effective interpersonal skills.  It’s harder to guide another person to success than it is to critique or correct their work. If you’re after efficiency, corrections are speedy and progress a task well.  If you’re after performance then effective, guiding and inspiring communication is the key.

Management and Leadership

What’s the difference between management and leadership?  It’s the ‘here and now’ versus the future.  It’s the task progressing versus capability developing. It’s meeting a deadline versus inspiring individual success.

Managers are torn between these.  With increasing focus on efficiency, we get increasing focus on management.  What matters the most is getting the job done properly and quickly.

Where managers can find the time to practice their leadership, they can focus on building the capability and performance of the individuals they lead.

Leadership is about inspiring people to have another go, to believe in themselves and to improve their work.  Leadership is not about correcting or critiquing.  When managing a task as it progresses to completion, we must make corrections.  But to lead an individual to a high level of performance, we must articulate what performance looks like and guide them to achieve this themselves. Rather than highlight error, managers must identify potential.

So how do managers build performance?  It’s about balance.  Balancing efficiency with effectiveness.  Balancing management with leadership.  It’s about less focus on retrospective error and rapid task completion and more focus on the next step forward to bring completion and performance improvement together

In the contemporary workplace where efficiency matters, management, task progress and retrospective feedback dominate daily discussions.  It’s no wonder performance drops and people lose their muchness.

Perhaps we need to slow down ever so slightly.  Take the time to engage, inspire and guide another person, use our knowledge and skills not to correct, critique and complete another person’s task, but to guide them to improve themselves and build their capability.   It may take a little longer, but it will bring back the muchness, it will return performance appraisals to fair discussions not performance builders, and it will enhance trust and leadership in the workplace.  It’s a win-win, no brainer.